And Also Sunflowers
—after the election, 2016
Distracting myself, I discover the year 1510, an interesting one, recall the old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. The election turned, and it was only you I wanted to talk to, but you’d changed the way you’d voted about our marriage. My grown son called; white and with guns, he said, “The revolution is coming, and I’ll protect you,” but knowing the different triggers we’d each pulled that day only made me feel lost in the maze of our loves’ histories. My private civilization seemed twisted, every passage a dead end, and the morning after, people walked looking down as if distrusting even their own feet, and I felt strange community in our grief. No wonder I am looking back at other times. That week, the unearthed skeletons of a mother and baby lain precisely on a spread swan’s wing made me weep because you aren’t here. I can only describe the feathered gesture in the six thousand year old grave as majestic though the word for elegance wouldn’t be invented until 1510. Also that year, England’s Henry VIII was 18, a boy-man with a world of violence yet to manifest in his future, the Portuguese General Albuquerque, Christian empire builder, would conquer part of India for the spices—black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom— calling it trade, and the 10th emperor of the Ming Dynasty would defeat a rebellion involving a prince, a eunuch, and the perennial issue of tax reform. Oh, in that year, a random one, so much occurred, and this, too: the first pocket watch was built in Germany. I am trying hard to think about time, how it grows, collapses in moments of loss or betrayal, our fascination with the gears of humanity, how one person’s future is another’s past, one culture’s colonization is another’s “settling.” Yesterday, in a public space, a woman admired my ring, then crossed the borders of our bodies to touch my bare arm with such tenderness of invasion that my throat loosened and the hairs on my neck shivered like feathers riffling. I almost felt unafraid. Later, at twilight, my neighbor once again shooing deer from his untended shrubs, arms overhead, looked as if he were being chased by something terrible and dangerous. My son may have wanted to make me feel safe. My husband may feel shame and guilt alone in his rented hut. I take everything in so personally. My life is interesting, and I feel cursed, though there is no such thing as that “Chinese curse”. The phrase was popularized when Robert Kennedy used it in his “Day of Affirmation Speech” in 1966 at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. It came first from the English ambassador to China in his 1949 memoir. It may have come from this expression: "寧為太平犬，莫做亂離人" (nìng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuò luàn lí rén) which I read is translated as Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than a human in a warring one, but when I tried to verify this myself in Google Translate I got: For the Pacific dog, do not leave people from chaos, so surreal, it feels right right now. Turning back to 1510, it turns out sunflowers are American, cultivated by the First People’s of New Mexico and Arizona. Spanish explorers brought them to Europe, and then they were cultivated in Russia, and in 1887, late in a Paris summer, Van Gogh painted four canvases with rings of yellow feathery leaves around seed-heart discs, seeds that, ground or pounded into flour, make cakes and bread, and I’ve read the pulped roots can even draw poison from a snakebite. It was the Italians who patented, in 1716, squeezing the seeds for oil, and today, the biggest fields are found in Tuscany and described as endless. Closer to home, in the New Jersey farmlands most people don’t know exist, one can get lost in a sunflower maze at Liberty Farm for just $10 per adult, $6 for kids, though a recent sign—No Drones Please— seems so complicatedly American. Bobby Kennedy’s speech in South Africa is also called “The Ripple of Hope” and he spoke against apartheid, and for the effect of individual efforts: A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. All males, yes, and the unexamined issues of classism, racism, sexism, were only beginning to be seen as poisons needing antidotes, and I was just eight when a young Palestinian man shot and killed him, the train with his body going from Boston to DC, my family and me standing in a string of knots, our community of Irish and Italians and Poles lined along the tracks in Merrill Park, the women crying, and whispering “Not another one.” Was it the year I became politically conscious? Began to wonder about the ways we are connected? I had not heard nor read: It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a [person] stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. [S/h]e sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance. Nor had I seen Van Gogh’s sunflowers, all those blind eyes, nor understood the seed head pattern is Fibonacci, named after the Italian who used the discovery by the poet Virahanka living in India in the 6th century. I don’t understand math, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling as I look at the whirled flowers, paint strokes for seeds a pattern discovered and then explained by people on different continents, but I can see the fallen petals of family, community, and country as exposing patterns so complex and embedded in time— the many futures of so many people’s pasts—that I am both awed by the elegance and terrified of what will come to pass, feeling alone and hopeless but trying to believe in one thing: time, both endless and terminal.
Laura McCullough is the author of The Wild Night Dress (University of Arkansas Press, 2017) selected by Billy Collins in the Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series. Her other books of poems include Jersey Mercy, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, and Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press), Panic (Alice James Books), What Men Want (XOXOX Press), and The Dancing Bear (Open Book Press). She curated two anthologies of essays on poetry, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia Press) and The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn (University of Syracuse Press). Her prose and poetry have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The American Poetry Review, Guernica, Pank, Gulf Coast, The Writer’s Chronicle, Best American Poetry, and others. She teaches full time at Brookdale Community College in NJ, is on the faculty of the Sierra Nevada low-res MFA, and has taught for Ramapo College and Stockton University. She is the founding editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations. Visit lauramccullough.org.